There’s a lot of coverage at the moment of the fortieth anniversary of what’s often held to be the real outbreak of the Troubles – that is, the serious escalation of violence in Belfast and Derry, and the deployment of British troops. And a watershed it certainly was, although unsurprisingly all parties are pushing their own libertyvalanced versions of August 1969. Provisional leader and occasional beat poet Gerry Adams has been ruminating a little on his blog, and there’s this account from Spike Murray, who has a prose style that I find pleasingly direct after my weekly dose of Gerry. If you’re in West Belfast and minded to attend such things, Spike will be addressing a commemoration rally this Sunday. And for those not of the Provo persuasion, there will be other events if you have a look around.
But what I wanted to do was to briefly pose a question – are the Troubles over? I don’t mean by that the armed campaign, although it does indeed continue on a very low level. What I’m thinking more about is sectarian tension at the social level, something that the New Dispensation hasn’t really resolved. The odd clashes there have been, the rioting in Ardoyne, the murder of Kevin McDaid and so on, are on one level the sort of thing you would expect over the summer months. It’s well known that the marching season has that sort of effect on a certain type of person.
But there’s also a sort of geographical displacement that’s quite interesting. The peace process, you see, has really been geared very much towards pacifying Belfast and Derry. Tensions do persist in Belfast of course, mainly in interface areas, which is to say mostly in north Belfast. Those are the areas where you’ve got long-term deprivation and associated problems like criminality, rubbing up alongside the sectarian tensions inherent in the patchwork of interfaces, and the two factors playing off against each other. A lot of this manifests itself around the issue of housing, specifically the huge waiting lists in some nationalist areas, and masses of empty housing stock in loyalist areas that remain off-limits to Catholics.
That, though, is the persistence of something we’re familiar with. There’s something else that’s been coming up on the rails, however, in the form of sectarian clashes in small towns and villages. By and large, too, these are places like Coleraine, Banbridge and Larne that in the main escaped the Troubles. You’re talking about places that would traditionally be considered part of the unionist heartland, where there was little trouble in the past because the Catholic communities were small, and believed in keeping the eternal low profile so as to avoid trouble. It may not have been expected that sectarian trouble would resurface in places like this under the New Dispensation.
Yet such is the case, and perhaps the New Dispensation, with both the diminution of fear and the property boom, has had something to do with it. During the trouble in north Antrim around the Twelfth fortnight, I was startled to hear of attacks on Catholic churches and GAA halls in villages like Cullybackey, Dervock and Ahoghill. Startled, you see, because in my memory these were villages that were exclusively Protestant. Some of them were as near as damn it exclusively Presbyterian. Sectarian clashes weren’t supposed to happen in areas like this.
And yet, demographic shift has been changing that. You’ve got provincial towns where there used to be maybe one Catholic estate, or even just dispersed families, where the Catholic population has grown significantly. In a given town it might have gone from 10% to 25% within the space of about ten years. And a growing Catholic population, in this era of power-sharing and Section 75 and all that, means an uppity Catholic population. At the most passive level, it means churches and schools and GAA clubs, the things that make a Catholic community visible. At the more energetic level, it means young lads deciding that, if the Orange are going to cover their town with flags and bunting in the summer months, they may as well hoist a flag or two on their estate. After all, there’s supposed to be parity of esteem.
And in the north, every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. You’ll recall that Big Ian launched his political career in the 1960s on the back of tricolours being flown in West Belfast. This is why I get the sense that some of these provincial towns are almost rerunning the birth of the Troubles – or maybe better, the immediate pre-Troubles period – on a forty-year time delay.
The context is wholly different, of course. We have the federal presidency at Stormont rather than the nakedly supremacist unionist government that existed back then. The old system is gone, smashed forty years ago, and isn’t coming back – but that doesn’t mean that the hangovers of the old system don’t exist in the the unionist backwoods. Especially when facts on the ground call into question the separate-but-equal thesis that a lot of unionists thought they were buying into with the peace process.
And this brings us back to what the peace process does and what it doesn’t or can’t do. Pacifying Belfast and Derry, through both a baroque system of government and the disbursement of peace funds to combatants willing to behave – not unlike what the Americans are trying to do in the Bananastans – has been raised to a fine art. But the New Dispensation is not very good at all when it comes to dealing with these sub-political tensions. The cops have plans in terms of public order, although they very often don’t work out very well. The political actors… well, it’s a bit like expecting a vacuum to show leadership.